Teresa Toten’s Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature, strikes close to home. I bought it in paperback when it first came out, and Teresa was at Granville Island presenting with Eric Walters. I was anticipating with excitement talking to Teresa, with whom I was Facebook friends, at the end of the presentation, but it was not to be. I had received a call from my daughter’s school, and had to run; she had just switched meds, and they needed me to come. Teresa signed the book to my daughter as I ran out the door.
More than that, though, I discovered early in the novel how insidious my own (mild) OCD is. (I’ve been told by the professionals, though, that it is only “D” if it gets in the way of living a meaningful life… so I’ve got this.) Still, the first time Adam contemplates numbers, my mind grabbed on and wouldn’t let go. Prime numbers are particularly wonderful; it’s true. And 51. I love 51. It’s not prime, but it is in fact the product of 17 (my favourite prime number) and 3 (another number I love). Also 7. Seven is great. And 151 because of the symmetry. Six is probably the worst number, though, and is bright red. Three, on the other hand, is a gentle green and 7 fluctuates between icy and vibrant blue. Letters, too: B is a nasty tawny yellow. But perhaps I am revealing too much weird…
Still, you can see how Adam’s character resonates. Teresa Toten’s novel enables readers to begin to understand how deeply traumatic it can be when innate neurodiversity is compounded by puberty and exacerbated by familial difficulties. Adam walks a tightrope, suspended by his mental acrobatics over an ocean of uncertainty, excessive responsibility, and self-recrimination.
When Adam’s counsellor, Chuck, suggests that his therapy Group take superhero names to help them feel empowered, Adam chooses “Batman,” partner to the new girl Robyn’s obvious choice of “Robin,” “like the … well, you know.”
… And even though he had never noticed girls before, not at all—okay a bit and sort of, but not really—Adam knew he had to save her, must save her, or die trying. For her, Adam would be and could be normal and fearless. He so wanted to be fearless. He could do it. He would be her superhero. … “Batman,” he said in a strong, clear voice. Adam Spencer Ross would be her Batman.
As Adam and Robyn grow closer, the complex dynamics of the therapy Group and his two-family life weave together with his insecurities, his sense of guilt, and his embarrassment regarding his OCD. Adam becomes more and more Robyn’s Batman, but he begins to drown in the overwhelming responsibilities both that he takes on and that others thrust upon him. His mother struggles with her own mental health issues, and Adam refuses to betray her confidence, certain that if he tries to get her help, he will be taken away from her and sent to live with his father. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except it would be abandoning his mother, who needs him: “His mother was fierce. Until she wasn’t.” His father’s home, in contrast, is neat and structured — but Adam is often the only person who can calm his five-year-old half-brother, who tends towards OCD himself. To top it all off, someone is sending vile anonymous notes to his mother, which she tries unsuccessfully to hide from Adam. It all becomes just. too. much. Something has to give.
Part of the answer is Adam’s growing maturity and greater engagement with the world around him.
Adam wasn’t sure why he was getting these blinding little insights, but lately he’d started to notice the world around him a bit more. Just how much Chuck, Brenda [his step-mother] and his father had to put up with. Adam noticed it and it sucked that he noticed.
It was hard enough when he didn’t notice.
This growing awareness also enables him to take on some of the truths people around him are seeing:
“Yeah,” said Snooki. “Like, you are so here for everyone in here, all the time. I don’t think it even registers with you how much you carry. You worry about too many people, like your mom, and your fat friend, and your little brother, and“—she shot Robyn a look—”and God only knows who else. Cut yourself some slack, Batman.” …
“No crap, man. Too much is too much.” Iron Man was shaking his head.
Robyn’s rather snark reiteration of Snooki’s opinion reinforces the message:
You know you can’t save everybody, right? … It’s part of your problem, like Snooki was saying as she was gripping your knee. Once in a while, even that over-toasted airhead stumbles onto something. … You just have to save the world, don’t you. … But really, my very own Batman, you’ve got to let go of all those distractions, all those extra worries, and concentrate on yourself.
And most importantly for both Adam and the arch of the novel, their neighbour Mrs. Polanski delivers the sage advice that “It’s the really hard part of growing up—knowing when to leave.” So when Adam notices how well Robyn is recovering, he makes a truly heroic gesture:
“This—we, us—is not good for you, Robyn. … I need to concentrate only on me. I’m falling apart, Robyn. You can’t save me. You’re making it worse.” Everybody lies.
This is a pivotal moment for Adam’s psychological growth; and what follows is the pivotal moment in the plot of the novel, but saying more would involve unwelcome spoilers. Adam’s small act of extreme courage sets the stage for recovery, and at the end of the novel we have no doubt that he will eventually move towards, not normalcy (“normal is a dryer setting”) but an inner strength that enables him to find balance.
At one point, Chuck tells Adam that “OCD has a more neurobiological than a psychological basis, although one’s emotional environment is critical to the presentation.” In this, as in so much of the depiction of neurodiversity in the novel, Teresa Toten is powerfully honest. Finding the balance of focus between self and environment is hard, and with Adam we have an example of both the difficulties and a path forward.
You can read more about OCD on the Canadian Mental Health Association website.